David Pagel’s December 11 lecture, timed in conjunction with the opening of LA Now—his newly minted curatorial effort at the Las Vegas Art Museum—was everything his writing portrays him to be: democratic, conversational and genuinely in love with art.
As a curator and art critic for the LA Times, Pagel has been instrumental in shaping the dialogue around the LA scene over the past decade, pushing it toward becoming the acknowledged art center that it is today. Recently named chair of the art department at California’s much-respected Claremont Graduate University, he is poised to further the revolution from an academic vista.
While not as intellectually meaty as some had hoped for, the lecture did a terrific job of revealing the thought processes behind the curating of this, or any, exhibition. Pagel’s enthusiasm for art is infectious, and for LA Now, the art literally came first. Articulating the loose organizational categories that emerged in preparation for the exhibition, he stressed that this structure evolved only after the artwork was selected.
Each artist falls roughly into one of four systems of thought: totems and icons; artificial or mythical landscapes; things that fall apart; and things that hold or pull together. Discussion around the categories reveals some of the critic’s position on contemporary art. Our day-to-day existence is so techno-centric that our experience of the spiritual—mystical confrontations with something beyond the self—is heavily rooted in icons that provide a virtual rather than physical transcendence (computer, cell phone, iPod). This lends itself to what Pagel sees as the supplanting of the photograph/painting dynamic so dominant in the last decades of the 20th century with one that pivots on the relationship between photography and sculpture. Physical space is momentous. And the current fixation with skewed formality and utopian modernism is part of a necessity to address the fluidity of meaning in a virtual, and virtually broken, global society.
“The world is complicated; we have to be flexible,” Pagel asserts. Thank goodness art is there to help us make sense of it all.